South Korea –– It’s component NASCAR, part bumper cars. It’s as much an on-ice roller derby and as it is a game of speed chess. The 500-meter short-track speedskating race is one of the most frenzied, unpredictable events at any Olympics, 40 or so blurry seconds of speed that includes crashes, disqualifications and tight finishes barely apparent to the naked eye.
The other two short track distances – 1,000 and 1,500 meters – are no stroll through the park, but the 500 is still various. With the longer races, skaters might try to maintain their energy, spending several laps jockeying for position before pouncing late. In the 500, the skaters look like they’ve been blasted out of a cannon. It’s an all-out, pistons-pumping sprint from start to finish, 4 ½ laps of grunting and bumping. Anthony Barthell, head coach of the U.S. short track team, likens it to track’s 100-yard dash – but without designated racing lanes and plenty of contact around the turns, sometimes incidental, other times covert and deliberate.
“It’s more outright sprint and power,” he said. “But there’s a little bit of strategy that goes along with it.”
“The strategy,” explained J.R. Celski, the three-time Olympic medalist who holds the world record in the 500, “is to go as fast as you can.”
For most, the race plan is easy: Get the lead within the first few strides and then fend off attackers. That’s because the short distance rewards sheer athleticism more than strategy.
The rink is 200 feet long, a quarter the size of the long track oval. The short race favors skaters who accelerate rapidly, which is a big reason 18-year old Maame Biney, a native of Ghana who moved to the Washington area when she was 5, could be a dark-horse candidate to reach the Olympic finals.
Biney nearly swept the 500-meter races at the U.S. trials in December, where she posted a personal-best time of 43.161 seconds. That mark is faster than any women’s Olympic gold medal-winner has posted since short track made its debut at the 1992 Winter Games.
The strategy and tactics in the longer races aren’t yet her strong suit, she concedes. She’d rather race than think.
“You just have to get off begin as fast as you can and just skate,” said Biney who graduates from South Lakes High in Reston this spring and plans to study at the University of Utah. “If there’s someone behind you, you have to figure out a way to block them. Or if there’s anyone in front of you, you have to find out a way to pass them.”
Preparing for her first Olympics, Biney was all smiles at a news conference Wednesday in PyeongChang, prompting a reporter to ask whether she’s that jovial on the ice.
“My game face on the ice is totally various from right now. It’s not this. It’s like, ‘Don’t be in my way because I’m possibly going to kill you,’” she said, breaking into a fit of laughter.
The women’s 500-meter qualifying heats start on Saturday with the finals set for Tuesday. The men’s races are scheduled for Feb. 20 and 22.
Even though Celski, competing here in his third Olympics, has skated a faster 500 race than any other man or woman, clocking a time of 39.937 seconds in 2012, he actually prefers the strategy of the longer distances. He’s only racing the 1,000- and 1,500-meter races in PyeongChang.
“They’re all physically demanding. Your heart rate might get higher in the 500 just because you are in a full-out sprint the whole time,” he said.
The 500 is a race that often assists crown the sport’s titans, like Apolo Ohno, the 2006 Olympic champion, or Viktor Ahn, the Korean-born skater who competes for Russia and took gold four years ago in Sochi.
Ahn, 32, is the largest question mark surrounding this year’s PyeongChang races. He’s the owner of six career Olympic golds, twice as many as any other skater. His eight total Olympic medals match Ohno’s career mark. Though he’d never been previously implicated with any wrongdoing, he was among the 2014 Sochi medalists barred from competing at the PyeongChang Games by the IOC due to doping concerns. The Court of Arbitration for Sport is hearing his appeal this week but isn’t expected to render a decision until Thursday or Friday, barely a day before the short track competition starts.
“It was shocking news for the team and, I’m sure, for the rest of the world,” Celski said of the IOC’s initial decision. “He’s one of the greatest of all-time in our sport. You want the greats to be here to compete against – you want to beat the best and he’s historically one of the great.”